What do you do when you star in one of the greatest films of all time at the age of 19? If you’re Debbie Reynolds, following her lead role opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the classic “Singin’ in the Rain,” you soar and fall and soar again, making the best of bad situations, never quitting, and always stopping the show.
In 1948, Mary Frances Reynolds was one of many girls around the country who got a studio contract by winning a beauty pageant, but this 16-year-old Miss Burbank left her peers in the dust. The studio system may have been slowly dying in the 1950s and 60s, but Reynolds left an indelible mark, from her work at MGM — if you know only “Singin'” and her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” give “Two Weeks with Love” or “I Love Melvin” a look next time they pop up on TCM — to her early championing of film preservation.
When most studios were shutting down their backlots and auctioning off old props and costumes, Reynolds began snapping up a substantial collection of memorabilia, much of which she displayed at her short-lived, eponymous Las Vegas casino.
At a time when almost no one else was respecting Hollywood product as art or even as pop culture, she was savvy enough to know that future generations would want to see Marilyn Monroe’s dress from “The Seven Year Itch” or the Von Trapp children’s playclothes from “The Sound of Music.”
Savviness would define Reynolds’s ever-evolving career. She became front-page news around the globe when her first husband, singer Eddie Fisher (father of her children Carrie, who died just a day before she did, and Todd), left her for Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds refused to play the victim, keeping her head held high and going to work all the same.
Left penniless by second ex-husband Harry Karl, she kept working, on film (her late 1960s horror turn opposite Shelley Winters, “What’s the Matter with Helen?” is must viewing, as is Albert Brooks’s 1996 “Mother”), stage (she earned a Tony nomination for the revival of “Irene”) and television. (Her dedication to dinner theater was spoofed in the comedy “Connie and Carla,” where Reynolds memorably played herself.)
On the small screen, Reynolds earned an Emmy for playing Grace’s mom on “Will & Grace,” stole every scene that wasn’t nailed down as Liberace’s mother in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra,” and she was quite possibly the only MGM contract player to ever guest-judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Given her relative youth at MGM, Debbie Reynolds was one of the legendary studio’s last living singing-and-dancing superstars. With her passing at age 84, we move closer to forever losing an entire, irreplaceable generation of one of Hollywood’s greatest eras.